My dad, Gene was unconventional in absolutely everything he did. Including raising Dan and I. We are better for it, but our edification was, at times, tense and confusing.
In low tones, not soothing, Gene presented 2 pairs of hush puppies to the corduroy-clad retail clerk at Thom McCann’s. The shoes were at the front door of dilapidation. Wrecked but still serviceable. Gene’s unreadable blue eyes lifted the clerks name off of his crooked tag.
“Ted, we buy here because you stand behind your product. Now look at them.”
“Sir these shoe look worn.”
“Of course they’re worn. They wore out.”
Having since kicked off the fully tied aforementioned shoes upon entering the store, Dan and I peeled away from our dad like the blue angels in an aerial maneuver. We headed for the back of the store where they had a real capuchin monkey.
A live monkey, in a store, Chapel Hill mall, in Akron, Ohio.
Respect for the brilliance of this marketing ploy lasts a tenth of a second when, upon reflection, your consider the thought process of the bloodless bastards that who contrived it.
“Fish? Please, Larry, Fish are for pussies. Get a goddam monkey in there and lets sell some Hush Puppies.”
Upon approach, the monkey was ping-ponging nervously back and forth. The white, brightly lit cage afforded the animal no privacy. The bars and the trim were highlighted with red as to give its environment a bit of circus whimsy. The monkey had a meager hammock and some plastic logs spanning the width of the cage at unnatural angles. The monkey slowed to a stop. Dan & I locked eyes with it. Dans palm slowly went to the glass. While it looked curious, as most monkeys do, fidgeting and tilting its head, one could detect malevolence behind its eyes. I knew it was waiting for its chance to exact revenge on all the asshole kids who, day after day, exert the “go-to” stupid kid move and pound on the glass. I envisioned the monkey at night, its dreams filled with graceful swirling scenes of it triumphantly eviscerating kid after chubby, slushie-stained kid as it bounded toward the food court.
“Sir how old are these shoes?”
“How old are your shoes?”
“How hold are your shoes?”
Um these? I’ve had em for six months.”
“Do you take care of them?”
“That’s right. Thom McCann is a quality shoe, but these are falling apart.”
“But these shoes are broken in, they are worn, sir.”
“Of course they are Ted, that’s what so damn troubling.”
We stood pondering this poor animals life. I tapped the glass inquisitively. Dan grabbed my hand.”Don’t do that”, he whispered, brows furrowed. I wanted to tell him to butt out, but he was right and I resigned. For a little kid, Dan could conjure up a authoritative tone. It caught me off guard now and then. Dan is what people call an “old soul”. His “old soul” superpower was his affinity to calm animals. Last summer, at the county fair, he was missing for a frantic 15 minutes until we found him in asleep the middle of 5 sheep in their pen.
Quite suddenly, a jittery tornado of a kid materialized next to us and hammered the glass like it was a timpani. We both jumped. “Don’t do that”, Dan barked. The intruder flung his eyes toward us without eye contact; the blank, unregistering glance of a child with a complete lack of social skills. He seemed to look past us as if we were a far off sound. He was shorter than us, but his face had enough scars to place him as battle worn. He presented a coiled affect that connoted striking ability. His neck tendons pulsed. In defiance, he slowly brought both palms up from his sides where Dan’s words had caused them to reflexively retreat. Slowly…slowly resting both palms against the cage, he lightly patted the glass, eyes darting from our turned heads then back to the cage. We held our gaze with his rheumy eyes with every dart.
“Hey you dick, that bothers the monkey”, I said. “Shh” Dan frowned at me and sidled between us. Dan would live out the rest of his life shushing me, only to turn and commit the same shushable infraction. He liked looking at confrontations through his own lens. To the casual observer, it appeared as though Dan was being diplomatic in positioning himself between us, but I knew he was stewing, he wanted closer.
This invader into our monkey time had all the tell tale signs of a kid who had been at the receiving end of countless ass kickings. However, brutal schoolyard behavior modification only strengthened his resolve to do the opposite of what was acceptable. We didn’t perceive him as retarded, we could just tell he wasn’t right. As a result, the only thing he had been able to learn thru this brutal cause-and-effect life was how to become a sneakier, slipperier miscreant. He would never fit in. Our ages disallowed Dan & I to understand the reason for this kids thwarted development. Clearly it was due to the lack of a solid male role model in his life. Our shining example of fatherhood was at the front of the store taking corduroy Ted to the mat over an $18 pair of shoes.
The kid rested his head with a reverberating “clunk” on the glass. Dan & I stiffened. Time slowed. I waited for Dan to unload. As a little brother, nothing was taboo in the ring. Hair pulling, finger bending, face scratching; skills commonplace to any little brother. And upon getting upset enough, like a power-up in a video game, Dan, like little brothers all around the world, would achieve the deadly: “little brother freakout” mode. A mode where younger siblings are temporarily gifted with superhuman strength.
Dan, of course, wasn’t even close to being there. This kid had something up his sleeve. Possibly literally.
This kid smelled like fresh human shit.
Human feces, when detected for the first time, is instantly recognized. No need to see the pile for confirmation. His scent gave us both an unspoken evolutional message: “attacking me will be unpleasant”. This is no different than animals who have evolved coping strategies over thousands of years. Quick wrinkled noses and wide eyes flashed between us, and confirmed that this kid had harnessed the power of shit. His own shit. This kid had evolved beyond our conventional schoolyard weaponry.
“Two new pairs of shoes? Thats out of the question!”, Ted screeched. The shit-kids’ mom was queued-up behind Gene. The strawberry blond nature of Ted’s beard started to clash with the growing redness of his face. Gene’s acute lack of emotional involvement allowed him to press his advantage. He used to sell “Niagara Massaging Chairs” door-to-door. Ted was emotionally involved. Ted was a marlin getting strip lined, pretending it didn’t have a 12″ lure in its mouth as it swam for deeper waters. Gene studied the shoes as if they were an interesting antique. Softer, Gene queries,
“Whats the warranty on these? Can you tell me?”
“Well its…” Ted stumbled.
“Is it a satisfaction warranty or is it a warranty based in time?”
“Yes. I mean, no. I mean its both……..besides”, Ted indicated to the the rougher looking pair of shoes, “this style is from last year, we don’t even make these anymore.”
“Ted, this is exactly why we won’t even buy shoelaces from those assholes at Stride-Rite. Let’s ask the manager what the policy is on this type of warranty. My bet is that he’ll agree.”
“I…I am the manager”, Ted muttered, then looked through some papers on his left, the faces Gene, with what he hoped looked like resolution.
Gene sighed. “I’ll buy a new pair if you replace this pair.” He nudged the filthier pair of Hushpuppies.
“Fine.”, Ted acquiesced, turning toward the back with a sigh.
“Yes”, turning back, hands on hips then folding his arms.
“Look, these things are worthless without saddle soap. Throw in some saddle soap, will ya? Thats way ya take care of those, ya know.”
Gene slowly closed the short gap between them, then touched his arm the way Dale Carnegie had taught him.
Almost whispering, sharing a secret, he says,
“We used ours up on the last pair, not to mention on all the other shoes we bought here. Don’t want this to happen again, ya know”.
Eyes twinkling, he squeezes Ted’s arm. One beat too long. Gene releases exactly one second before Ted prepared to rip his arm from his grasp. He hurries to the back before Gene could ask for anything else. The lady behind Gene conspicuously sighs, raising her thick arms, then allowing them to slap down to her sides like an octopus on dry land. Facing her, Gene, casually leans against the counter, victorious, and asks, “Ever buy shoes here?”
“Thinkin about it.” she replies, frowning, guard up.
“Make sure ya take care of ’em. After abouta year, they turn to shit.”